Two years ago, I wrote of big lava colored bows being strung on every lamppost on campus. Well friends, they’ve returned.
Granted I’ve been a college student for almost three years and you would think I’d be used to being surrounded by wreaths, bows, and 24-hour long Christmas movie marathons…but for some reason, I’m still not there yet. I have wonderful roommates who are interested in learning about Judaism and listening to my usually long-winded answers, and I have outlets on campus I can go to for my fill of sufganiyot and latkes and for riveting games of dreidel played with dreidels that were 3D printed on campus. But it still has not been enough.
I chose to go to college in a state with a whopping Jewish population of less than 1%. I knew this when I started as a freshman, and that fact doesn’t bother me. It bothers me when I become an exception or when I become a proof.
“You look Jewish.” Do I? Because Bar Refaeli, Mayim Bialik, and Golda Meir are all Jewish too…
“There was one Jewish kid in my high school, but I didn’t like her.” Okay…I’m sorry you had a bad experience?
On the other hand, I chose to go to a university with a Jewish population of 12%. I chose to go to college in a place that, yes, has dealt with its share of anti-Semitic episodes, but has also pre-emptively banned BDS from coming to our campus.
I am surrounded by caring and curious people who want to understand Judaism. Our apartment this year (with the same roommate from freshman year plus two more wonderful ladies) is a winter wonderland flanked with a miniature Christmas tree, string lights, window decals, two chanukiahs, and a snowflake collection like you wouldn’t believe.
For the first time this year, a friend looked at me in one of my classes and asked, “So when does Chanukah start this year?” When I told her, her immediate reaction was “I’m so happy for you! You finally get to be home for a holiday!” And then it felt like enough.
For some reason, it wasn’t that I’ve been craving a generic “Happy Holidays” or a single Chanukah song to be played in between “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It wasn’t that I’ve been wanting to share Disney Channel’s “Full-Court Miracle” or the Rugrats Chanukah Special with my friends. It most definitely wasn’t that I preferred to call any old Christmas tree a “Holiday Bush.” For some reason, I needed to hear from someone that would have no reason to think about it that my holiday was legitimate. I needed to know that someone out there understood that not being able to come home for any number of Jewish holidays throughout the school year is an emotional challenge; and she understood better than I could ever have expected how special it would be for me to finally, finally be home to celebrate with my family.
I arrived home in time to decorate the house for Chanukah for the first time in three years. That certainly does not mean that the house was decorated in time for Chanukah, but isn’t it the thought that counts? Nevertheless, I was home. As I was contemplating which of our homemade childhood decorations to hang around the house, I caught myself transfixed by a corner in the entryway of our house: on one wall, a music box that plays “Hatikva” when you pull a string; on the other wall, a scrap of metal from a Qassam rocket molded into the shape of Israel with the words “Am Yisrael Chai” etched in the middle over Jerusalem; and on a stand between these two works of art, the samovar my great-grandmother carried with her from Belarus to Ellis Island. And though these relics are decoration enough for other every other day of the year, given the opportunity to finally decorate for a holiday, I was suddenly inspired to take it.
So tonight, as we lit the second candle, I took a moment to appreciate my surroundings: my home, a Jewish environment and upbringing, and my university, slightly foreign but altogether welcoming. This year, I get to admire a new facet of Chanukah: I am blessed to be celebrating in a non-threatening environment. And I’ve got friends and a special corner of my house to remind me how incredibly special that is.